Pittsburgh Pirates 2011 Position Recap: Center Field

Throughout the 2011 season, Pittsburgh Pirates fans saw something that hasn’t been witnessed in Pittsburgh for a long time: a home grown player was making the jump in to “star” status.  Andrew McCutchen entered the 2011 season with just a year and a half under his professional belt.  His first two years were extremely consistent.  He hit for a .286 average each year.  He hit for a .365 OBP each year.  His power dropped off some in 2010, going from a .471 slugging percentage in 2009 to a .449 in 2010.

Considering that McCutchen was doing all of this at the ages of 22 and 23 spoke well about his future.  It gave the idea that McCutchen could improve on those numbers as he saw more at-bats, and as he got closer to his prime years.  In fact, this was what I wrote in last year’s center field recap:

Could Cutch be a true superstar?  Could he be a 25+ home run guy, with 40-45 doubles a year, and an average above .300?  That might put him closer to the Hanley Ramirez level.  That may seem optimistic, but McCutchen just hit 16 homers with 35 doubles in his first full season in the majors, at the age of 23.  Would it be out of the question to anticipate a jump to superstar numbers as he gets closer to his prime and gets more experience in the majors?

That might have sounded optimistic last year, but that might not be the case after this year.  McCutchen just finished a season where he hit for 23 homers, along with a .259/.364/.456 line.  His batting average dropped from his previous .286 mark, mostly due to a slump in the second half.  However, his on-base percentage was one point away from the .365 number he put up the previous two seasons.  His slugging also saw a jump over last year, with his isolated power of .198 being a career high.

The big thing that stood out with McCutchen this year was his second half collapse.  Heading in to the All-Star break, McCutchen had a .291/.390/.505 line with 14 homers in 327 at-bats.  In the second half of the season he had a .216/.330/.392 line, with nine homers in 245 at-bats.  Another big change between the first and second half was his strikeout rate.  McCutchen posted a 19% strikeout rate in the first half.  That was close to his 17.1% strikeout rate heading in to the season.  In the second half he dropped to a 26.1% strikeout rate.

It’s hard to say what happened to McCutchen in the second half.  He wasn’t consistently bad.  From the All-Star break through the end of July he had a .183 average and a .627 OPS.  He rebounded in August to a .266 average and an .811 OPS.  That’s also when five of his nine home runs came.  Then, in September, he fell apart again, with a .171 average and a .671 OPS.

Some might argue that McCutchen was swinging for the fences, with his increased strikeout rate and increased home run numbers pointing to that argument.  However, it doesn’t explain why he had a lower strikeout rate in the first half, despite a better AB/HR rate.

There’s also the fact that McCutchen’s slump came at the same time as the downfall of the team.  This becomes a chicken and the egg argument.  Did the team start to slump because their best hitter also entered a slump?  Or did McCutchen start to slump as a result of the team slumping?  The low point of the season came in late July/early August, when the Pirates lost ten in a row.  McCutchen had a .200/.282/.257 line in those ten games.

Going further with this, when the Pirates won in 2011, McCutchen had a .337/.445/.631 line.  When they lost, McCutchen had a .198/.296/.322 line.  It’s hard to say whether that’s a correlation or a causation.  If it’s a causation, that suggests that the team lost because of McCutchen.  However, a similar split exists for almost everyone else on the team (although not as extreme as McCutchen’s split), which suggests that it wasn’t just McCutchen’s performance impacting the team.

You can also point to the fact that McCutchen struggled in the second half of the 2010 season.  This doesn’t show up in the overall numbers, but when you look at the monthly splits, McCutchen had a .661 OPS in July and a .732 OPS in August.  This followed a .796 OPS in April, a .901 OPS in May, and an .809 OPS in June.  McCutchen bounced back with a .929 OPS in September, but still struggled for two months in the second half of the season.  This year the second half struggles mostly came in the second half of July, and the month of September.

There’s a ton of theories that could be brought up to try and explain McCutchen’s second half struggles this year.  I’m not sure we could get answers from any of them.  The important question going forward is whether the second half was a fluke, or a sign of things to come?  That could be the difference between McCutchen becoming a star, or just being an above average player.

The top priority this off-season should be extending Andrew McCutchen.

Extending Andrew McCutchen

Last year I talked about a potential Andrew McCutchen extension, and pointed out how it was too soon for any serious extension talks.  Players generally don’t sign extensions until they reach their arbitration years, or in some cases, right before their arbitration years.  In most cases, the player wants more time to become established, while the team wants more time to see if the player is legit.  Rarely do you see players getting extended as quickly as guys like Evan Longoria and Ryan Braun, unless the team is absolutely sure about the player, the player really wants to play for the team (such as Jose Tabata’s situation), or a combination of both.

A year later and I’d say we’re in the reasonable time frame to start to expect an extension.  That still doesn’t mean one is guaranteed this off-season.  There’s been a lot of speculation about how it might take a $50 M deal to extend McCutchen, similar to the deal Jay Bruce signed last off-season.  One big difference is that Bruce was eligible for arbitration as a Super Two player, where as McCutchen would just be a league minimum player this year.  Under the same six year deal, McCutchen would be worth less than the $51 M that Bruce received, as he wouldn’t have that extra year of arbitration.  However, I don’t think that something in the $50 M range for six years would be out of the question.  In fact, I’d say that’s fair value for the player that McCutchen looks to become, especially when you consider that a deal similar to the one Bruce signed would buy three extra years of control.

The Pirates have an estimated payroll of $30 M for the 2012 season, prior to making any off-season additions.  There will be a lot of calls for various additions over the off-season, whether that be first base, starting pitching, a starting catcher, or even a set-up man.  The top priority this season should be extending McCutchen.  If the Pirates don’t get it done this off-season, that won’t mean they’re out of chances.  However, the Pirates are entering an important time in their rebuilding process.  In the next year or two they will have McCutchen, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Charlie Morton, James McDonald, and others going through the arbitration process.  They’ll have top prospects such as Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, and possibly even Jameson Taillon arriving by mid-season 2013.

The Pirates won’t have any issues paying the above players, even if they’re still in the $50 M range.  If they want to add any pieces to that group, it would be much easier if they knew what they were paying McCutchen over the next few years.  You could make the same argument for any of the arbitration eligible players, but McCutchen is different.  He’s a guy who projects as a star player.  He’ll be going through arbitration as he enters his prime years.  That’s not a situation where you want to go year to year with a player.  All it takes is one break out year to send McCutchen in to Prince Fielder territory of making $10-15 M a year in his final two years of arbitration, then leaving after his six years are up.

In the past we’ve heard the “financial flexibility” line.  That only makes sense if it’s an added benefit, and not the primary benefit.  When Jason Bay was extended, the Pirates got financial flexibility, but that was all.  They didn’t get any additional years of Bay.  They just bought out his arbitration years, ensuring that he wouldn’t see a big pay boost.  That’s fine, but it comes second to extending the amount of control you have over the player.  The number one priority for McCutchen should be added control.  Ideally that will include a deal like Bruce received, where the Pirates get control of McCutchen’s first three free agent years.

After that, the added benefit to an extension is knowing what you will be paying one of your top players over the next few years.  This allows the Pirates to build a team around McCutchen, without having to worry about a big spike in arbitration.  The earlier that happens, the better for the Pirates, but only if it comes with extra years of control.

The Future

Yesterday I reviewed the corner outfielders, noting that the Pirates have two young players in the majors that are under team control, as well as two players that will be in the upper levels of the minors in 2012.  One of those players, Starling Marte, could be the future of the center field position, despite McCutchen’s excellent performance.

Marte has excellent defense in center field, with great range, and a plus arm.  His arm is what really separates him from McCutchen in center field, and is what could move McCutchen over to left field eventually.  Marte is also very fast, although so is McCutchen, so there’s not a significant advantage there either way.

Starling just completed a breakout season where he hit for a .332/.370/.500 line in 536 at-bats at the AA level.  There are still questions about his low walk rate, although that shouldn’t affect his average, as he makes good contact, and gets on base often due to his speed.  He cut down on his strikeout rate this year in his jump to AA, which was the bigger concern coming in to the year.  The fact that he also added power speaks well to his future.

The scouting reports on Marte aren’t consistent, but there have been some glowing reports that have come out recently.  Jason Parks tweeted a report from a scout who said that if Starlin Castro was a center fielder, with Franklin Gutierrez’s glove, that would be Marte’s ceiling.  That’s high praise, considering Gutierrez is very strong defensively, and Castro is a highly regarded young player.  Baseball America mentioned that Marte’s tools prompt comparisons to Austin Jackson, who is currently the center fielder for the Detroit Tigers.

Whether Marte is in center and McCutchen is in left, or vice versa, the Pirates are in a good situation.  They’ve got two center fielders with strong defense, and you need that with PNC Park’s spacious left field.  We know that McCutchen can hit, and his upside is more of what you’d expect from a corner outfielder, rather than a center fielder.  Marte has the look of a strong all-around center fielder, and his offense in AA this year only reinforced the idea that he could put up strong numbers in the majors one day.

The Pirates are in a strong situation with both players currently in the system.  Marte should start off the 2012 season in AAA, and if he carries over his second half success from 2011, we could see him in the majors as early as June 2012.  With Presley, Tabata, Marte, and Robbie Grossman all in the system, there’s bound to be the eventual discussion of “should the Pirates trade McCutchen”.  I’m not ruling out anything for Marte, but I don’t see Tabata, Presley, or Grossman reaching McCutchen’s upside.  That means that if Marte arrives next year, and the Pirates have an outfield with McCutchen, Presley, and Tabata all performing well, a trade to clear space for Marte should come from the Tabata/Presley group, rather than taking away a guy who is arguably the top player on the team right now.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

Share This Post On